Killing Off The Mutants
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Hollywood often seems to encourage mediocrity in it’s effects-laden blockbusters. But even if X-Men: The Last Stand doesn’t live up to the standards of what went before it, Brett Ratner’s new production does earn a gold star for “average.”
The concluding chapter in the operatic mutant trilogy bellows and thunders, but without any arias or crescendos, it’s just a lot of noise. And normally, that’s all that one can reasonably expect from a summer movie. Unfortunately, the first two movies in this series set a high bar. They were both superhero movies for the thinking man, possibly the only examples in the entire spandex-and-cape genre. Brooding, atmospheric, and character driven pop meditations on alienation, the first two X-Men flicks were a deliciously silly cocktail of gravitas and fun.
More so, the original director, Bryan Singer, tried his best to respect the source material and found a cast that followed him. Mr. Singer is helming the summer’s other superhero extravaganza, “Superman Returns,” and it’s left to the exceptionally average Mr. Ratner to perform an act of big budget imitation. Mr. Ratner’s career includes the “Rush Hour” movies and “The Silence of the Lambs” prequel “Red Dragon.” He mimics Mr. Singer’s love of darkly painted action scenes here, but that’s about it.
Mr. Ratner turns in a comic book movie, for sure. There are some splendidly dorky set pieces, and lots of action. But what makes this franchise so special is its understanding of the formula that made the comic book one of Marvel Comics’s biggest selling titles. Conjured up in 1963 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the X-Men were a team of superhero misfits, “mutants” with powers that marginalized them from the rest of the world. Tapping into the deep well of adolescent isolation was nothing less than a stroke of genius, as it turned the usual power fantasy dynamic intrinsic to comic books on its ear. It’s one thing to save the world with your incredible powers, it’s another to have tomatoes thrown at you for the effort.
Mr. Singer embraced the “mutant” metaphor, perhaps a little too humorlessly at points. But his excellent cast backed him up and made you believe that a man with laser beam eyes could shoulder tragic pathos. There is something beautiful about a Shakespearean actor like Ian McKellen playing a character who calls himself “Magneto” as if it were Lear. The best special effect in both movies were the actors, who added an embarrassing credibility to their characters. And these characters are the first thing Mr. Ratner sacrifices in “X-Men: The Last Stand,” choosing instead to conduct a cacophony of CGI effects instead.
“X-Men: The Last Stand” is touted as the end of a trilogy, and in the second installment, telekinetic Jean Gray (played by the fabulous Famke Jannsen) sacrificed her life to save her friends, who remain extra moody about it. The movie starts promisingly enough with a flashback to a young Jean Gray and, a creepily digitized young Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto. Then we’re whisked away to another flashback, where a father discovers his teenage, mutant son trying to saw off his wings. And so the stage is set for the bothersome plot. Gray is resurrected thanks to that old daytime soap chestnut, the split personality. Only in her case, her other personality is an emotionally volatile mute with God-like powers. Meanwhile, the father of the self-mutilating mutant has spent the ensuing years developing a “cure” for mutants, which just serves to fill them with even more angst. The ethical quandary of whether or not to remove all that makes one special in order to fit is only given lip service, as it’s just an excuse for mutant butt-kicking.
The movie quickly dispatches characters from the first films in perfunctory ways, and there is no emotional payoff to these deaths. It’s as if Mr. Ratner wanted to clear house so he could flood the screen with as many mutants as possible. The more the merrier, but Mr. Singer went to great lengths to make you care about his superheroes, and it seems a bit of a betrayal to fans. Even more odd, all of the women in the movie are cast in the “hell hath no fury” mold, with major characters either disintegrating the men who try to control them, giving up their powers for love, or overreacting to a bad break-up. I’m not suggesting there’s an agenda there, it’s just, well … odd.
Laugh out loud dialogue also plagues the movie, as do slightly moronic moments, such as when human wrecking ball and soccer hooligan Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones) is told to keep clawed lumberjack Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) out of a house Magneto is entering. The behemoth follows orders by throwing Wolverine into the house. But it’s not all bad: The climactic mutant melee that pits the evil mutant diaspora against the X-Men and a human army is pure nerd ecstasy.
As the Beast, Kelsey Grammar looks like a feral Cookie Monster and talks like a pendant, but seems to have as much fun as Mr. McKellen. Never disappointing, Halle Barry is the very portrait of adequacy and actually compliments Mr. Ratner’s derivative aesthetic. The only remarkable thing about her is her new hair and accent, which has changed in each of the films. As Magneto, Mr. McKellen is given one too many villainous speeches, but there isn’t anyone in the biz who can spread their fingers jazz hand-style and really sell the invisible magnetic powers surging forth. And of course, there’s the hunky and hirsute Hugh Jackman, the biggest badass Broadway has ever seen.
Mr. Jackman’s Wolverine is one of the great action heroes of film, and while “X-Men: The Last Stand” is billed as the final movie in the series, expect to see a Wolverine spin-off. But a note to any future screenwriters that might be cooking up such a movie: Wolverine is not Heathcliff. In “X-Men: The Last Stand” we’re shown a softer side to Wolverine, no doubt to please female viewers. Here’s a free tip from the friendly press: Female viewers like crazy, unleashed fury Wolverine just as much as the guys who might still live in their mother’s basement.
Sometimes, an average movie can be above averagely average. And while Mr. Ratner is no Orson Welles, his movies have an artisan quality about them. He’s learned from watching others, and employs the techniques of more masterful filmmakers. But there is no shortage of middling movies out there, and the X-Men franchise gleefully aspired to something more. It’s too bad they couldn’t have ended the series on an atomic blast, instead of a bang.